[Originally published in Hurriyet Daily News, with readers' comments]
There was an interesting headline in this weekend’s papers. Khalid al-Zafarani, a senior member of the Muslim Brotherhood, told the Associated Press that he and some of his colleagues were working to found “a political party with the same program of Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party [AKP].” They would copy not just the policies, but also the very name of the Turkey’s AKP, Mr. al-Zafarani explained in Cairo, since they were inspired by the party’s achievements.
Back in Ankara, Salih Kapusuz, the deputy chairman of the AKP, said they were “pleased” to hear the news about Egypt’s upcoming AKP, and expressed hope that it “would succeed in bringing prosperity and happiness to the Egyptian people.”
And all that sounded like good news to me. The Muslim Brotherhood, the mothership of political Islam, is a key institution for the future of not just Egypt but also the broader Arab world. It is not a political party as such, and is more of a grassroots network, so its political line can take various forms. In the past, most of its variants certainly promoted a very authoritarian, if not totalitarian, notion of Islam, by which the state would impose anything that it deems “Islamic.”
But that authoritarianism is not the only way to understand Islam, and there have been efforts within the Brotherhood to articulate a new vision in line with the norms of liberal democracy. The al-Wasat Party, founded in 1996 as a splinter group from the Brotherhood, was one such good case, but its influence has been limited – and, of course, its members were the subject of a crackdown by the despotic regime of Hosni Mubarak. Al-Zafarani’s effort seems to be not just another move toward the al-Wasat line, but also a signal to the change that is taking place in the mainstream Muslim Brotherhood perspective.
If this sounds like day-dreaming to you, then consider the impact that Turkey’s AKP had on another branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, the one in Syria – a county which is being tortured these days by the bloodthirsty dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad and his fellow thugs. An excellent report by Istanbul-based Polish journalist Piotr Zalewski that was published on Aug. 11 in Foreign Policy unveils this little-known story. Titled “Islamic Evolution: How Turkey taught the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood to reconcile faith and democracy,” Zalewski’s piece shows how life in Turkey, and the impact of the AKP, has helped raise a younger generation within the formerly-militant Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. This is a generation which agrees that Islam can only be proposed, not imposed, and that “individuals must be free to choose what they want.”
Inspiring the spring
“While many in Europe and the United States fear that Turkey’s ruling [AKP] has introduced a dangerous Islamist influence into the country’s traditionally secular and Western-oriented stance, religious groups struggling to overthrow stagnant autocracies across the Arab world take a different lesson from the party’s success. Particularly in Syria, where President Bashar al-Assad’s crackdown on a domestic uprising has become increasingly brutal during the holy month of Ramadan, pious activists have looked to Turkey as a model for reconciling their faith with the democratic hopes of the Arab Spring,” Zalewski wrote.
This would, of course, not be possible, if Turkey were the Turkey of the past – a zealously secularist and madly nationalist non-democracy, which suppressed even the most moderate expressions of Islam and saw all its neighbors as enemies. As Turkey gradually became more democratic, more open and more at peace with its own identity, it apparently began to mean more for the Muslim nations around it.
So, if things go well, the Turkish experience – that of the AKP, of course, not the headscarf-banning generals – can really become a beacon of democracy in the Arab world. There is already a “Justice and Development Party” in Morocco, another one is apparently coming in Egypt, and, if the evil republic in Damascus can be defanged, perhaps another one can emerge in Syria. Just keep fingers crossed.